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Rightful Resistance: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are many ways to resist the state, but each carries different levels of risk. In this lesson, we'll check out rightful resistance and see how it's been used to create change.

Rightful Resistance

So, you're upset with the government. It happens. What are you going to do about it? Well, you could grumble to your coworkers about it, and if you're feeling bold enough, graffiti a rebellious message on a government building in the middle of the night. Or, you could start a rebellion and try to overthrow the state. It's up to you.

Disobedience creates a risk of arrest or worse. Rightful resistance is one way to minimize that risk.
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Perhaps you're more of a middle-ground person. If that's the case, you may consider rightful resistance. Rightful resistance is a form of political action in which the people use established laws, policies, and values to show that some officials have failed to live up to those same ideals. Through this method, they seek to make allies of other leaders who must prove their own dedication to the prescribed laws and values. Basically, the people point out the hypocrisy of some leaders in order to get others to resolve the issue. It's a form of popular action that is peaceful, direct, and in no way disobedient. It's resistance, but it's totally alright.

Kevin O'Brien and Rural China

So, where did this idea of rightful resistance come from? The term was first proposed by Kevin O'Brien, professor of Political Sciences and East Asian Studies at UC Berkeley, in his 1996 article Rightful Resistance. The idea was expanded into book format in 2006, co-written with Beijing scholar Lianjiang Li.

Let's start with a little background on the study of rightful resistance. At the time, many studies still grouped resistance into one of two forms, the direct and aggressive rebellion or what was called ''everyday resistance'', subtle, anonymous, and disguised forms of dissent.

In their research on rural China, however, O'Brien and Li started noticing forms of resistance that didn't fit within these models. Instead, they saw examples of people expressing discontent openly and directly, but without being disobedient. In fact, these people were extremely obedient, utilizing the language and rhetoric of the state to show their compliance with the laws. It was the local officials who were failing to respect the values of the Chinese government. By highlighting this discrepancy, the rural citizens got the attention of other elites who had to act on their behalf lest they be accused of the same hypocrisy as the local officials. This was rightful resistance in action.

The rightful resistance theory emerged in research on rural China.
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This form of rightful resistance seemed to be more direct and therefore more successful than everyday, anonymous resistance. At the same time, it did not carry the risks of visible disobedience or rebellion. Since the activists were not breaking laws or social values, the state had no way to legitimately silence them.

Four Tenets

O'Brien and Li eventually defined their concept of rightful resistance through four tenets. First, rightful resistance pushes the boundaries of the law, but always stays within authorized and legitimate channels. Protestors use the court system, formal systems of registering complaints, and similar means to make their voices heard.

Second, rightful resistance uses the rhetoric and obligations of those in power in order to limit their power. Basically, if an official claims to be loyal to the government but was acting oppressively, the people can use his own words to force him to behave within the accepted limits of power. This use of rhetoric allows the people to act out openly and publicly without the risk associated with disobedient forms of resistance.

Third, rightful resistance relies on the people's ability to find and exploit divisions among the powerful. If one official isn't obeying the law, the people can threaten to take the information to the official's superiors or political rivals. Unlike other forms of popular resistance, this one requires the support and action of sympathetic elites, so protestors play elite interests against each other for their own benefit.

Finally, rightful resistance needs active community support. As with other forms of resistance, community involvement in advancing a shared narrative is crucial. If the entire community uses the rhetoric, laws, and customs of those in power, it highlights the hypocrisy of officials violating those same principles.

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